Chapter 1: Prologue

The landlady did not approve.

Each night when the young man in the shabby gabardine suit turned up at the door, she would scowl at him through dark, narrow eyes. With a wad of cheap snuff in her lip, she would usher him into the dank, narrow corridor that smelled of cabbage and unwashed linen. He would tip his battered cap and greet her courteously by name. She would snort disapprovingly at him and take the fistful of coins that he offered her, for the money that might have gone to pay for better lodgings was squandered to buy discretion.

Then the visitor would grip the banister tightly and trudge up the stairs, and the woman would suck her teeth as she muttered maledictions in her native Xingese. Yet she would pocket her nightly bribe, retreat into her musty parlour and, as was the agreement, turn a blind eye to the sinful goings-on above her – for what else would a man want with a sweet young girl whose rent he paid?

In the slope-roofed garret room under the eaves of the decaying tenement house, the young man took off his cap and unwound the wool muffler that was the only warm garment he wore. The room was tiny, heated by a cast-iron brazier. A narrow, dilapidated bed took up most of the floor-space. There was a rickety table and a chair in one corner, and in the other a tiny clothespress that exuded the camphorous stink of mothballs.

It was in this grim setting that the girl was waiting for him tonight as always, swathed in a shirt that had once belonged to her father. The man gave her a parcel of food: two cold chicken legs, a potato, twin slices of bread stuck together with a thick smearing of butter, and a cinnamon roll. The girl took the potato at once, setting the rest of the food on the windowsill where the winter drafts would keep it cool until morning. She sat down on the edge of the bed to eat the baked tuber, which gave the young man time to warm his hands, sharpen his pencil with a military-issue penknife, and take out his notebook.

They exchanged no pleasantries – the pale, dark-haired youth and the blonde slip of a girl. They knew their respective roles in this nightly drama. When both were ready the girl removed her shirt, curling one arm modestly over her small, developing breasts. The young man averted his eyes, for he was not here to stare at that part of her body. For a moment, as always, the girl hesitated. Then she climbed onto the creaking bed, smoothing her skirt as she stretched out on her belly. Her bosom almost vanished into the sagging mattress, and she crossed ehr arms to pillow her head.

The young man drew the ragged wool coverlet over her, tucking it about her hips so that she would not grow too cold. Then he dragged the table towards the bed and sat down beside the girl. The waistband of her skirt was too high, obscuring the small of her back. Carefully, almost tenderly, the man undid the top two buttons, folding back the cloth only as far as was necessary. The girl shivered a little, not from cold, and the youth put a warm hand on her naked shoulder. The gesture was an unspoken apology. He did not like using her like this. He abhorred the necessity.

The girl said nothing, but a little of the tension ebbed from her body. She began to relax as the young man opened his notebook. The tenement was wired for electricity, but as they could not bear the added expense it was by candlelight he studied. His dark eye searched the familiar lines before him for something – anything – that might provide a clue. He took in every angle, every contour, the words and their position in relation to her vertebrae and her smooth shoulder-blades. The smallest detail might be important. The key to the enigma was here somewhere. He just had to find it.

Hours dragged by. The girl drifted into an uneasy slumber, the heater grew cold, and yet the young man worked. Tonight it was the shapes that he studied: the curl of the letters about the central array, the sleek sloping bodies of the serpents with their strangely textured scales.

When at last the purloined candle burned to a nub and fizzled out, the young man was forced to admit that this night, too, had been a failure. He lifted the blanket to cover the girl's back, taking care to keep his hands away from the places where the ink marred her fair skin. He could not leave her uncovered, and so this contact like the touching of her shoulder earlier was necessary, but he did not dare to risk touching the tattoo itself. It exuded an aura of danger and power that at once alarmed and exhilarated him. If only he could unravel its secrets...

Not tonight. He wrapped his muffler around his neck, donned his cap, and slipped from the room.

It was the black hour that preceded dawn. The streets were deserted in the bitter December cold. The youth strode quickly through both, chaffing his hands together in an attempt to warm them. On the fringe of the city spread the broad estate of the National Academy, that institute of higher learning responsible for the grooming of the officers of the future. The staff sergeant at the gate recognized the shabby figure and waved him through.

The young man rounded the squat building labelled Barracks II, and slid the heavy door open just enough to allow his slender form to pass through. The cadet in the cot nearest the door stirred a little in the unexpected draft, and the latecomer froze. When the sleeper rolled over and fell still, he moved as quietly as he could to his own place in the middle of the room. He stripped off his civilian rags with all haste. Once he was down to his standard-issue undergarments he reached into his footlocker to slip his notebook into one of his university texts. Then he rolled into bed, his exhausted body losing all cohesion. Weary and discouraged, he closed his eyes and let his mind ooze away in search of a couple hours' rest.